How Chefs Do Spices: Curry Blends and Fragrant Fennel Rubs

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Chefs’ Picks tracks down what the pros are eating and cooking from coast to coast.

To say spices are an important part of cooking is to put it mildly. Spices have started wars, inspired love, spawned exploration and made food much better tasting. From curry to BBQ rubs, custom blends to single seasonings, four chefs from across the country share their most-loved spice.

Fennel Spice Rub

Chef Eric Donnelly of the seafood-centric RockCreek in Seattle creates his own self-described “totally bulletproof” spice rubs throughout the menu. “I use it on a ton of items including fish, some lighter meats such as rabbit and pork, even roasted vegetables like cauliflower and potatoes,” he says.

RockCreek Fennel Spice Rub

1 cup whole fennel seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons whole white peppercorns

2 cloves

1 dry bay leaf

3 tablespoons kosher salt

Put all ingredients, minus the salt, in a coffee grinder and pulse until smooth. Add salt and store in an airtight jar.

Porchetta Spice

Where there’s good Southern food, there’s likely a spice rub. For Craig Deihl of Cypress in Charleston, S.C., that means a hybrid Southern-Italian porchetta spice fragrant with fennel and rosemary. “I love it because it’s versatile on all types of pork: porchetta, pork belly and shoulders. Rubs are a pretty important ingredient when smoking meats in the South, and I consider this my version with an Italian influence,” he says.

Craig Deihl’s Porchetta Spice

4 tablespoons salt

2 1/2 tablespoons fennel seed

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon white pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon fresh chopped garlic

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Heap ground Curry

Madras Curry Powder 

Chef Tin Vuong of Little Sister in Manhattan Beach, Calif., likes curry powders for their spice and heat. “We at Little Sister are obsessed with spices, and I enjoy playing with different combinations to draw out and highlight the flavors of the current vegetables,” he says. Curry powders typically include chile powder, coriander, cumin, fenugreek and turmeric, though Vuong likes to incorporate galangal and nuts for his East Asian dishes. His Madras curry powder packs a pantry’s worth of spices, including cumin, peppercorns, fennel, cardamom, cayenne, coriander, mustard seeds and more.

To make curry powder at home, Vuong suggests experimenting with ground spices you have on hand. He recommends fall baking spices like cinnamon, clove and nutmeg for tomato-based curries, and lemongrass, ginger, lime leaf and coconut for fish and shellfish. Citrus zests and juice can help balance any richness.

Vadouvan 

Chef Ari Weiswasser of the Glen Ellen Star in Sonoma Valley, Calif., likes to use all sorts of unique spices. One of his favorites is vadouvan, a French spin on curry powder. The version he uses, which he sources from a San Francisco specialty store, uses toasted ginger, garlic and onion, and comes in a pastelike consistency that Weiswasser works into meat or oil infusions.

He currently features vadouvan in an autumnal chicory salad with pears, vadouvan-spiced nuts and a Roquefort-based dressing. “With such a strong flavor, I make sure the spice is balanced throughout the dish, and I often use it as only one component.”

Porchetta photo courtesy of Cypress